Review: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Our thoughts on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness are as nuanced and complicated as we wish the film was. Ironically, for a film that could be criticized for tying a big part of its emotional weight to a streaming TV-show (WandaVision), it actually underwhelms for failing to follow up on many hanging plot threads from other properties, and it does not feel coherent with the stories told in those properties. The result is an anti-Marvel Cinematic Universe film, a movie that depends on other properties to be fully comprehensible, yet which attempts to be creatively independent in a way that neuters the entire point of an interconnected cinematic universe.
The return of Sam Raimi to superhero films is a cause for celebration in many ways. Raimi is a creative filmmaker with his own unique directorial language. We wrote back at the start of Phase 4 of the MCU that it seemed like there might be a deliberate effort to get more unique directorial touches into these movies, and that has proven true.
The strongest parts of Doctor Strange are individual moments where Raimi’s directing genius is allowed to run wild. While calling this a horror film would be a stretch, it has several scenes that are genuinely creepy and chilling. Horror elements are wielded effective with demons, spooky spell-casting, body contortions, and even jump-scares. The film has an overall sense of dread and escaping a powerful nightmare. Toss in some of Raimi’s trademark quick pan-zooms and a highly creative battle between characters wielding musical notes as weapons, and this is undeniably a Raimi work. This musical note sequence is probably the most fun moment in the movie, pairing frequent Raimi-collaborator Danny Elfman’s score with on-screen action in a twist on Fantasia.
The acting is also one of the film’s biggest strong suits. Benedict Cumberbatch is more effective than ever as the titular Doctor Strange, wrestling with his own sense of meaning after having been forced into the superhero life. This does continue a thread from the first film, which is appreciated despite it being one of the MCU’s more forgettable entries. Rachel McAdams is also decent in a surprisingly increased role in this film, having been all but forgotten in the big Avenger team-ups that Strange was in. While underutilized, especially given the tease of the first Strange film’s post-credits scene, it is fun to see Chiwetel Ejiofor back again as well. Benedict Wong is as droll as ever, returning as Sorcerer Supreme.
Elizabeth Olsen is the real star of the show, giving an excellent performance that generates some strong, emotionally effecting moments throughout. Her acting alone helps you relate to her character’s struggles and fills in where the script leaves gaps. And while Xochitl Gomez’s America Chavez ends up feeling like a half-formed character, Gomez does have her own unique charisma as an actress.
But the acting is only reason these characters work. The largest issues with Doctor Strange rest on either a disjointed script or a film that became disjointed in post-production. Much of the film feels rushed, cutting from scene to scene without allowing breathing room to let characters develop and let moments have their impact. This is a shame, because where the film does slow down and have great character moments with, namely, Wanda, they are some of the best moments of the film.
For casual fans of the MCU, the arc of Scarlet Witch being a full-on villain feels mildly incomprehensible. She is hurriedly revealed as the villain within the opening twenty minutes, with little tension or drama. The film barely explains any of what happened in her prior show, but requires you to know what happened in it. Yet the flaws are even bigger for the dedicated MCU fan, because this movie actually betrays or ignores the arc of WandaVision, as well as seemingly ignoring shows like Loki, and What If?. This problem is exacerbated if you look just at the films preceding this one. Despite the trailer’s suggestion that Spider-Man: No Way Home’s plot might matter here, it plays absolutely no role and might as well not have happened.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness fails to use its multiversal elements satisfyingly to build up a story with meaningful stakes. Ironically, in an attempt to create a film that could stand more on its own, the film reveals how dependent it is on the connected universe. By entirely omitting characters such as Vision or the characters arcs of prior works, though, the film lacks the ability to satisfyingly progress these characters’ stories. The multiverse ends up becoming a vehicle for a very small number of cameos, which as fun as they are in isolation lack any real dramatic purpose.
Bringing Sam Raimi on to direct can only be seen as a positive, as this movie is fun and offers some great moments. I teared up with emotion a few times because of the concert of themes Raimi offers and Olsen powerfully performs. Yet the film also leaves one deflated because it fails to utilize its place as the 29th film in an interconnected universe as well as it could, even though the movie is dependent on that context. It will therefore frustrate both dedicated and casual fans.